Chapter Twenty-Six - Winter is Coming

On Route to Noveria

April 14, 2183

Waking slowly, Liara tried to remember what she had eaten for dinner the night before. She hadn't had nightmares since she was fifty years old and had to sleep in her mother's bed. Whatever it was, she wanted to make sure she didn't eat it again. They weren't fun.

Groaning, Liara enjoyed waking slowly, wondering why her cot felt more comfortable than normal. When she usually woke up, she spent five minutes or so cursing whoever had built her expedition cot. Sitting up, she stretched her arms, scrunching her eyes closed even tighter. Stretching her body even further into a position she was sure looked painful but felt oh so very good, Liara smacked her dry lips together, realizing her sudden craving for a cool glass of water.

That would have to stay a craving though. Cool and Therum didn't really go together. Lukewarm water would have to do.

"Mmm…" Liara still hadn't bothered to open her eyes, turning her nose towards the direction of an absolutely wondrous smell. "What's for breakfast, Zarah?"

Zarah didn't respond right away, which wasn't normal for her. Usually Liara was one of the first awake, but Zarah was always the first. She was the sole human on the team, and she always made breakfast. It was simply something that she'd done since she first joined the dig a year ago. No one had asked her to do it, but it happened nonetheless.

Zarah not being there obviously meant that she had overslept and that meant…

Liara gasped, horrified and embarrassed. She had overslept, and the rest of the team hadn't bothered to wake her up. They had gone to the dig site without her!

Again.

This was becoming an annoying pattern.

She didn't give any thought to the fact that the last time this had happened was almost fifteen years ago.

Harrumphing, Liara crossed her arms over her chest and opened her eyes.

Swinging her legs over the edge of her cot… Liara froze, something niggling at the back of her mind. Her cot wasn't this far off the ground.

Was the rest of the crew playing a prank on her? They hadn't before, but the other asari at her college had taken every chance they could to pull one over on her.

"Zarah?" Liara called out, frowning, rubbing her eyes. "Brent? This isn't funny!"

There wasn't a response, not even quiet snickers of people hiding and watching for her reactions. Whatever they had done to her, moving her cot obviously wasn't the full prank.

Might as well see how far they wanted to go with her.

Rubbing her eyes again, Liara cracked them open for the first time and was immediately met by absolute blurriness. She rubbed her eyes, trying to clear it away, and when she pulled her hands away from her eyes, she froze.

"This…" She stared around the room she found herself in. "This isn't the camp…"

lIt struck Liara all at once, almost a physical blow. Gunfire, blood, and death! Geth streaming out of entrances into the dig that they hadn't even found yet, slaughtering her… well, she guessed she could call them friends. All of her friends murdered in front of her, and getting stuck in the Prothean stasis bubble for at least a week…

And then… And then being rescued by the humans. Well, the humans, the turian, the quarian, the krogan, and the equestrian.

Huh…

Her mind raced, and she came to the only conclusion that made sense.

The geth had captured her. They had used holograms to convince her to help them get her out, and she'd fallen right for it.

"No!" Hugging her blanket around herself, Liara rolled herself right off the bed. Hitting the floor with an oomph, she rolled under her bed and pulled the blanket over her head, hiding as best as she could, never mind that the geth would never, ever, ever be fooled by that (much less anyone else).

Peeking out from inside the blanket, Liara quickly came to the conclusion that there weren't any geth present in the room. There was however an older human woman with black hair that was starting to go grey, a pair of reading glasses perched delicately on her nose. She was still holding the book she was reading up, though she wasn't paying any attention to it, instead just staring at Liara, unblinking.

Pushing out a hand out from her blankets, Liara gave a small wave and a weak smile. "Hello."

"Good morning, Dr. T'Soni," the woman said, her voice holding a pleasing accent that Liara honestly wouldn't mind hearing more often. "I'm glad to see you're awake."

"Yes." Liara blinked owlishly, still hidden in her blankets. "Good morning. Hello." She cocked her head to the side, looking at the woman with wide eyes. "Where am I? Who are you?"

"I'm Dr. Karin Chakwas," the woman said, smiling at Liara in amusement, "And you're aboard the Alliance ship, Normandy."

"Nor-man-dy." Liara tested the word out, her translator having been unable to make heads or tails of it. She couldn't say why, but she liked the name. It felt right.

"How are you feeling, Dr. T'Soni?" Chakwas asked, setting her book down and getting up from her desk. She walked calmly over to Liara and lowered herself down gracefully.

"I'm…" In comparison, Liara was hunched over uncomfortably under the medical bed, looking up at the woman. She couldn't help but start rocking back and forth, her eyes unfocusing ever so slightly. "I'm fine."

"I don't think so." Chakwas spoke firmly, but she wasn't unkind.

"Hm?" Liara tilted her head to the side, unable to look away from the woman.

"You were severely dehydrated, and malnourished too." Chakwas smiled at Liara, doing her best to look as unthreatening as possible. "If you were human, frankly, you would have died days ago."

It was a little known fact that Asari retained water far better than humans. It was a product of their aquatic origins, or at least that's what the scientists believed. Unlike other species though, asari were far more vulnerable to physical attacks than any human.

"Oh," was all Liara found she could say. She smacked her lips together, starting to take stock of her body's needs. "I do feel thirsty."

"That is to be expected." Chakwas nodded, pulling out a slim medical device that Liara didn't recognize. The doctor held it up for her to see. "Is it alright if I scan you, Dr. T'Soni?"

"Please," Liara said softly. "Call me Liara."

"Hmm?" Chakwas looked up from where she was looking at her medical device, before a dawn of understanding came over her. "Ah, yes, of course Liara."

She held up the scanner again, smiling. "May I?"

Waiting a moment, Liara nodded.

Without waiting for a moment longer, she started scanning Liara, while also making a call on her omni-tool. "Commander."

###

It was a little known fact that Riley was an incredibly strange sleeper. She could manage to catch a few minutes of sleep wherever she went. That had been incredibly helpful during her 'N' training.

At the moment, she was sprawled out on her bed, snoring as she dreamed of Donut Joe's, and her last visit with her little sisters. If she was awake, she'd feel an urge for a raised donut with chocolate icing and sprinkles. Her sheets were tangled around her, and she was absolutely naked.

"Mm… No, I want the fuzzy elephant…" Mumbling into her pillow, the muscles down her back twitched, and she jerked in her sleep. "Don't take him, mommy…"

Snorting, Riley rolled over and managed to get herself even further tangled in her sheets, even as she scratched herself, smacking her lips together.

"Commander." Riley's omni-tool chirped and Chakwas' voice filled the room.

Riley snorted again, struggling against her sheets, just starting to rise out of her slumber.

"Commander." Chakwas tried again, sounding a little annoyed.

Riley rolled over again, murmuring in discomfort at the unwanted noise.

"Commander, Dr. T'Soni is awake." Chakwas tried a different angle of attack.

Once again rolling over, her arm managed to fling itself out and she hit the answer button on her omni-tool, just in time for the microphone to pick up a rather impressive snore.

A moment of silence on Dr. Chakwas' end greeted her.

"But, apparently you aren't…" Chakwas sighed, more than a little frustrated about that. She tried again. "Commander? Commander. Commander."

"Who is the Commander?" Liara asked Chakwas, sounding as curious as any multiple doctorate holder could.

At the new voice, Riley started to wake up. She groaned, trying to stretch, only to find that her limbs were held in place by her sheets.

"Wha…" She managed to murmur out. She struggled, grunting in annoyance, only to stop when she noticed her omni-tool was active, and stuck on transmit. "Uh… hello?"

"Commander?" Chakwas' voice was full of long suffering, but Riley could swear she heard a bit of amusement in the older woman. "Are you awake now?"

"Doctor?" Shepard frowned, confused. She might have been able to fall asleep anytime, anywhere, but waking up had always proven to be more difficult. "What's happening? Why did you wake me up?"

"Doctor T'Soni is awake," Chakwas simply said.

"Oh!" That was obviously a good enough reason to be woken up. "I'll be there in a minute."

In what took an embarrassingly long time for an N7 agent, Shepard managed to untangle herself from her sheets and stumbled to her door.

Hitting the green button in the center, the door cycled open and Shepard stepped out of her room, hiding a yawn behind her fist. She was thankful that the med-bay was just right across from her room. It was fairly early, and the A-crew was still in the middle of eating breakfast.

Still yawning, Riley was just in time to trip over Rainbow Dash, who was in the middle of talking to Wrex in the kitchen as he spooned what looked like a second helping of eggs and hash browns onto his plate.

"Sorry," she mumbled, still a little out of it.

Riley just kept on walking as soon as she caught her balance, rubbing sleep from her eyes. She didn't notice Rainbow and Wrex staring after her, both of them focused on one particular part of her.

"Uh…" Rainbow held a hoof up, then lowered it, her ears flicking back as she tried to keep from snickering. "Riley?"

"Later, Rainbow," Riley called over her shoulder. "Busy now."

Riley walked past two engineers, who couldn't help but stare at her, before looking away as quickly as possible, averting their eyes.

"Shepard, your ass is hanging out and you're giving me a show I normally have to pay money for." It took Wrex's voice to cut through the haze still surrounding Riley's thoughts.

Riley froze, then looked down at herself, before hanging her head. Turning around, she marched right back into her room, not bothering to explain herself to any of the crew still in the galley.

###

As the door shut behind Shepard, Wrex and Rainbow looked at each other, neither quite believing what they just saw. Rainbow's muzzle scrunched up as she tried to stop herself from laughing, but it was a futile effort, and she devolved into a fit of giggles, flopping off her hooves and onto the floor. Wrex laughed along in his slow Morgan way, something that was more felt than heard.

"Oh Celestia!" Rainbow managed to moan while trying to catch her breath. She was giggling so hard that it actually was starting to hurt her sides. "That was priceless!"

"Heh." Wrex grinned, letting that image sink into his long term memory. When you had a potentially unlimited lifetime, you had to pick and choose the memories you really wanted to save. Short term memory for krogan lasted for decades, but long term was forever. "Does Shepard often walk around without any clothes on?"

"It's not..." Managing to roll back over and climb into all four of her hooves, Rainbow did her best to catch her breath. "It's not uncommon, I'd guess you say. Mostly when when she forgets that she isn't wearing anything."

"Huh..." Wrex nodded, as a thought occurred to him. "I wouldn't have taken her for a sleeps in the nude type."

"Yeah..." Rainbow tried her best to unmess her mane with a hoof, unintentionally making it even wilder than before. "It was a little awkward for her when she realized we all pretty much walk around naked back on Equestria, and the only thing she's ever gotten really comfortable with is sleeping naked."

Rainbow scratched at her shirt, glaring at it with a look of hate. Damn galactic morals demanding that she wear 'clothes' to keep from offending anybodies poor sensibilities. Who cared how many laws said you had to be dressed for public outings when the damn stuff always itched to Canterlot and back.

"I don't have that problem." Wrex really didn't. No one cares what the half ton krogan wore. That had really come in handy on more than a few occasions.

Rainbow looked Wrex up and down, raising an eyebrow. "Dude, you're a big giant frog with enough natural armor to stop a shotgun. It's hard to tell if you're even wearing armor or not."

"Want to know a secret?" Wrex asked, his lips pulled back in a grotesque smile that made Rainbow ever so slightly nervous. If she hadn't spent so much time around Riley and seen her canine teeth, Rainbow was sure she would be entertaining thoughts of bolting (never that she'd admit to being afraid).

Instead, Rainbow leaned closer, carefully schooling all the fear from her face as she tried to look as intrigued as possible. "What?"

"Once, I went a month on the Citadel without anyone noticing I was buck ass naked." Wrex's grin managed to grow wider than Rainbow ever thought possible. "All my armor got blown off by mercs."

Rainbow blinked slowly, processing what Wrex had just told her. She clapped a hoof over her mouth, but she couldn't help but start laughing, great big guffaws. "Nobody noticed?" She asked between breaths.

"Nope." Wrex shook his head, the grin never leaving his face. "I even got a compliment from a turian about how stylish my 'armor' looked."

"Oh!" Rainbow punched his leg with his hoof, struggling to breath in between her laughing. Wrex didn't even feel it. "Oh! Stop talking! I can't breathe."

Wrex laughed at that.

Neither of them realized that they made quite the sight standing together. A seven and half foot tall krogan and a pony that was dog sized. A big dog, yes, but still dog sized.

Well, Wrex knew. He just didn't care.

They both turned to look as Shepard stepped out of her room again, this time (thankfully) fully dressed. She was doing her best to act like nothing happened, though Rainbow and Wrex were making it hard for her with their constant laughter.

###

Chakwas looked up as the med-bay doors opened, setting down her book as Shepard walked in. She wondered for a moment at the slight blush on the younger woman's face, but didn't pay it any further thought. After quick nods of greeting to each other, they both turned their attentions to Liara.

The asari was sitting on her medical bed, her legs crossed under her, working her way through a plate of waffles that sat on her lap.

Liara paused when she felt eyes watching her, fork halfway to her mouth. Even as she took the bite, she looked up and saw Shepard staring at her. Her face erupted in a soft violet blush, and her cheeks bulged ever so slightly.

Swallowing her bite, she gave small, tentative wave. "Um... Hello."

"Hello, Dr. T'Soni," Shepard said, having to keep herself from laughing at the sight.

"Captain, yes!" Coughing, Liara set down her plate of waffles, realizing that she was speaking with the Captain of the ship. She leaps out of bed, tossing her waffles to the floor, sloppily saluting. "Hello, sir, ma'am… yes."

At that rather enthusiastic greeting, Shepard just blinked. How on Earth (or Equestria for that matter) was she supposed to respond to that?

She also payed no thought to just how adorable that was.

"You can just call me Riley." Shepard nodded at Liara, who was blushing even harder than before. "Or Shepard, if that's too informal."

"Right." Liara ducked her head. "Yes. Riley. That's a nice name."

Shepard and Chakwas shared a look, though neither of them knew they were thinking the exact same thing. She's one odd girl.

Shepard turned back to face Liara, who was still holding the salute.

"You, uh… you don't have to do that."

"What?" Liara tilted her head to the side, blinking owlishly.

"You're not military. You don't have to hold with any of our formalities." Shepard grinned. "Even if you were, you aren't in the Alliance."

"Oh…" Liara let her hand drop, awkwardly clasping her hands in front of her on her lap. "Alright."

"Alright," Shepard said, happy to have that taken care of. She was human, sure, but she had spent a considerable amount of years being raised in Equestria. The human military loved their formalities, but her time with Equestria's services had taught her the beauty of informal (but professional) relationships.

"Please, call me Liara then." She rubbed her arm, glancing off and to the side, the blush having never left her cheeks.

"Alright, Liara." Leaning back against the bed next to Liara, Shepard crossed her arms under her breasts. "I'm Commander Riley Shepard, Council Spectre. Do you remember what happened on Therum?"

Liara's expression darkened, and Shepard knew at that moment that she did.

"Yes…" Liara looked at Shepard, but it was as if she was a thousand miles away, staring right through her. She was remembering, her voice hesitant as she straightened it all out in her head. "You saved my life, and not just from the volcano. I can never thank you enough for that. Those geth would have taken me to Saren, or just…"

She gulped, her eyes focusing back on reality as she realized just how much danger she had been in. "Just... killed me."

"Do you know what Saren wanted with you?" In her time since coming back from Therum, Shepard had thought of her own theories, but she wanted her what Liara thought.

"No. I'd only ever heard his name in passing when I spoke with mother." Liara was trying her best to remember things that had to have happened a long time ago, at least from Shepard's perspective. "I know that she has been meeting with him for the past few years."

"I see." Glancing at Chakwas, Shepard bit her lip. "Have you ever heard of something called the Conduit?"

"The Conduit?" Liara looked up at that word, recognition written all across her face. She practically vibrated with excitement, but managed to get that under control in just a second or two. She bit her lip, embarrassed, glancing away from Shepard. "I only know that it's connected to the Prothean Extinction."

"That's my real area of expertise," Liara explained, her voice becoming more confident as they ventured into topics of discussion she was more familiar with. "I got my doctorate in Prothean studies. I've spent the past fifty years trying to figure out what happened to them!"

The more Liara spoke, the more excited she got. Shepard watched as she practically vibrated on her bed, unable to contain herself. It made Shepard… happy, and she found that she wanted to hear more.

"Why?" Shepard asked, giving a little half smile.

"The Prothean extinction means everything!" Liara gesticulated wildly with her hands, grinning from ear to ear. Her teeth were brilliantly white, obviously obsessively taken care of. "They were powerful, and their empire spanned across the entire galaxy. For them to vanish practically overnight…"

Liara looked off into the distance, the passion of her studies obvious on her expression. "To figure out why, it would be the single greatest thing that I could ever do with my life."

"Fifty years?" Shepard had known that Liara was older than her, but to actually hear it for herself... "How old are you?"

"I hate to admit it, but I'm only one-hundred and six."

"Only." Chakwas snorts, rolling her eyes. "I hope I look half as good as you at that age."

Chakwas wasn't just joking, either. When humanity spread into space, a mass of technological advancements had followed with them. Now, with all the gene mods that were available to humans, the average person had a chance of at least seeing their way to two-hundred.

"A century may seem like a long time to a short lived species like yours, but among other Asari, I am barely more than a child." Liara did her best to explain, with a voice that spoke of long suffering and familiar resentment. She blushed and looked away. "It's why my research hasn't received the attention it deserves. Other Asari scholars dismiss my theories because of my age."

Shepard and Chakwas shared another look. That right there was probably the reason why Saren wanted Liara.

"Have you turned up anything interesting?" Shepard asked, curious. She had to know, either way.

"What is interesting is what I haven't found. There is remarkably little evidence that the Protheans even existed, and there's even less that might explain why they disappeared. It's almost like someone did not want the mystery solved. It's like someone came along after the Protheans were gone and cleansed the galaxy of all the clues." Liara started to get even more excited than she had been before when she was explaining all of that. "The incredible part is, according to my research, the Protheans weren't the first galactic civilization to mysteriously vanish. The... cycle, I suppose you could call it, began long before them."

"I thought you said there wasn't any evidence."

"I have been working on this for fifty years. I've tracked down every scrap and shred of evidence. When you look at everything together, a picture starts to emerge. Just what that picture is though…" She shook her head, biting her lip, frustration evident in the slump of her limbs and frown. "It's difficult to see it from the right angle. It's like I can just catch a glimpse, and it's on the tip of my tongue, but then it's gone as fast as it came. I'm not even comfortable letting myself speculate on the truth, because the evidence... it's thin. I can never point at any one thing, and I fear that no one else would even see it. It has been fifty years…"

"If the Protheans weren't the first, who came before them?" Shepard tried not to dwell on the fact that if Liara was right (and she knew deep down that she was), it meant that all recorded galactic history was suspect.

"I don't know." Liara shrugged, looking befuddled. "There is barely any evidence for the Protheans, and there's even less on those that came before. I can't even prove that they existed, but I know I'm right."

"I believe you," Shepard said, giving Liara an encouraging look.

"The galaxy is built on a cycle of extinction. Each time a great civilization rises up and expands, it is suddenly and violently cast down until only sparse ruins remain." It was debatable whether Liara had even heard Shepard's encouragement. "The Protheans rose up from a single world until their empire spanned the galaxy. They were only able to do this by climbing on top of the remains of those who came before them. The Citadel, the Mass Relays, they are simply technologies based on those who came before them. And then, like all the forgotten civilizations before them, the Protheans disappeared. I have dedicated my life to figuring out why."

Shepard sighed, knowing what she needed to do, deciding to just tell Liara what she knew. If she was going to be staying on the Normandy (and at this point the asari had no choice, it was protective custody for T'Soni) she needed to know everything. "They were wiped out by a race of sentient machines. The Protheans called them Reapers."

"The Reapers?" Liara's face scrunched up in confusion, testing the word on her tongue. "I've never heard of… How do you know this? What evidence do you have?"

"There was a damaged Prothean Beacon on Eden Prime," Shepard explained, trying to be as helpful as possible. "It burned a vision into my brain, and I'm still trying to sort out what it all means."

"A beacon?" Liara's eyes went wide, and then they unfocused.

Shepard was a little surprised that Liara didn't start drooling at the idea.

"That makes sense!" Liara nodded, talking more to herself than anyone else in the room. "But... the beacons weren't meant to interact with human physiology. I'm surprised you were able to make any sense of it at all."

"It's just a bunch of random images and ideas. Not exactly the height of communication." Shepard shrugged, sad to disappoint the too adorable for her own good asari.

Liara opened her mouth to ask something, but then closed it again, thinking better of herself.

She repeated this again, and Shepard sighed. "You can ask whatever you want, Liara. No one is going to make fun of you here."

Liara nodded, pursing her lips, before doing as Shepard asked.

"With your permission, I would like to try something, Riley. You were touched by the beacon. The visions are locked away in your mind. I might be able to help you." Liara looked so hopeful that it honestly made Shepard ache a little.

"What do you have in mind?" Shepard had a feeling she knew what Liara was going to ask.

"I can join my consciousness with yours. Maybe my knowledge of the Protheans will help clarify your vision." Liara looked embarrassed to even be suggesting it, but there was an eagerness that she couldn't hide.

Shepard glanced at Chakwas, who shrugged, before turning back to Liara. She'd already melded with her once without any seemingly ill effects. What was one more time?

She wasn't sure that Liara remembered doing that though.

"It's worth a shot." Shepard shrugged, uncrossing her arms.

Liara nodded, easing herself off the bed and stepping close to Shepard. She put her hands on Shepard's temples, taking slow, deep breaths. "Relax your mind, Riley, and Embrace Eternity!"

The last thing Shepard saw were Liara's eyes going completely black.

###

A tall tree stood in the center of a well groomed park, and a little asari girl sat at its base, a little plastic shovel clutched tightly in her hand. She scooped another bit of dirt out of her hole. She'd obviously been at it for quite some time, and there was a surprisingly sizable stack of dirt sitting next to her.

Around her, older asari kept passing by her, staring at her and whispering about her, but no one bothered to step in and stop her or even to ask her what she was doing.

"Liara!" A horrified voice shouted out, and Liara looked up, smiling as she watched her mother storm towards her. Her yellow dress whipped around her ankles, reflecting her mood.

"Mother, I'm digging for-" Before Liara could explain any further, Benezia grabbed the little shovel out of Liara's hands and pulled her roughly up and out of the dirt. "What in the name of Athame are you doing? Digging in the park…"

Benezia's voice faded away, as did the park, until all that remained were Liara's tears.

Full grown, Liara sat near the front of her classroom, studiously taking down notes as the professor lectured on. She did her best to ignore the giggles and the pointing coming from across the room, directed right at her.

Instead, she buried her head in her data pad, and pretended that she couldn't hear them.

Who cared that she was a pure born? She wasn't an Ardat Yakshi.

Still, the words and their stares hurt. She can pretend like they don't, but inside, she's falling apart.

Her mother has been pulling away, and Liara finds that she's on her own more and more. She has to rely on herself for help, because no one else will.

Liara cuddled close to her mother in the big master bedroom. Benezia softly sang to her, the words long forgotten, but the feelings always remained. Peace and love and contentment radiated deep in Liara as she snuggled closer to Benezia's side.

Benezia runs her hand gently over Liara's crest, massaging it gently. It had been aching as it set into place, and she hadn't felt so good in a long time.

Liara had never quite felt so happy as she had during that moment.

"This isn't what you want!"

"How would you know?" Liara shouted back, her voice hoarse. "You haven't even spoken to me for a year? What do you know about anything?"

"Asari from across the galaxy come to ask me what I know." Benezia spoke with all the depth and understanding of an Asari matriarch. "You must understand, Little Wing-"

"No! I'm not- I'm not-" Growling, Liara struggled to find her words. "I'm not some matron seeking to understand the secrets of the galaxy, bowing to your every wish and need. I'm your daughter, and I just wish…"

Liara trailed off, and the harshness of Benezia's face softened ever so slightly.

"What Little Wing? What do you wish?" Her mother asked, tilting her head to the side.

"I just wish you could support me. I wish you enjoyed what I love. I wish you would…" Liara choked back a sob.

"I do love you, Little Wing." Benezia stepped forward, wrapping Liara in a warm hug. "I love you more than you could ever know."

Liara sighed, resting her head on Benezia's shoulder.

"I love you, and you must understand, I know what's best for you." Benezia continued speaking.

Liara clenched her eyes shut tight, and pulled out of Benezia's embrace. "I'm sorry, mother."

Liara pulled free from her mother's embrace and walked away.

She could feel her mother's gaze firmly on her back the entire time.

###

With a gasp, Liara pulled away from Shepard, blinking. A hand went to her head, and she stumbled, feeling weaker than she had just moments before. Luckily, Shepard managed to catch her before she could fall.

"You okay there?" Shepard asked.

"I'm…" Breathless, Liara settled back on the bed with Shepard's help. "Oh… my head."

Coming up behind her, Chakwas gave her a quick dose of painkillers. The asari didn't even notice.

"That…" She looked up at Shepard, studying her face. "That wasn't what I was expecting."

"I'm sorry we didn't get to see what you wanted." Shepard apologized, feeling bad.

"What?" Liara looked up at Shepard in confusion.

"I'm… sorry?" Shepard watched Liara, confused.

"What for?" Liara scrunched her nose up, raising a delicate eyebrow.

"We didn't get to see the... vision." Even in her confusion, Shepard wondered just what they were actually called. Asari didn't have eyebrows, yet Liara had those two identical marks above each of her eyes.

Weird.

Liara was looking at Shepard like she was talking nonsense. It was probably a good thing that she couldn't hear her thoughts. That would have probably given her a cause for concern.

"I saw…" Liara said, oblivious to Shepard's thoughts. "I saw death, and destruction... what did you see?"

"Uh… nothing." Shepard blushed, looking away.

Liara studied her for a moment longer, then decides it wasn't worth it to try and figure out what was up with Shepard.

"I need to... I need to…" Falling back onto her bed, Liara collapsed into the fetal position, starting to snore, a soft sound that fit the agonizingly dorky expression on her face.

Shepard and Chakwas shared a look. Liara was simply too much, asleep on the bed.

"Keep an eye on her." Shepard managed to say, shaking her head as she walked out of the room.

"Of course, Commander," Chakwas called after her, her voice soft.

###

When she had left the fleet, Tali'Zorah had never imagined that she would find herself onboard the most advanced ship that had possibly ever been constructed. For months, she had struggled to find even the most basic bits of human respect, but now…

Now, she was deep within the bowels of the Normandy's engines, studying the wondrous mix of human, turian, and equestrian technology. She was trusted to be doing that, and she was welcomed. It was a strange feeling to be trusted so completely, but it was one she could get used to.

She noted that the Equestrian side of the ship hadn't fully been integrated yet, but it was obvious that everyone had been hard at work on it.

Tali took note of everything, drinking it all in as only a quarian could. She already saw so many ways that she could improve things, and in turn, hopefully help improve the flotilla when she returned from her pilgrimage.

"Tali?"

The sudden volume of her omni-tool surprised her, and she banged her head on the ceiling of the narrow access tube. Cursing in quarian, she activated her omni-tool and opened the comms.

Tali bangs her head on the top of the duct in surprise, cursing in quarian.

"What?" She growled out, wishing she could rub the bruise she was sure was forming. That was the only problem with being confined in a suit. You could never get at your bruises to rub them like you'd want.

"You okay there?" Tali recognized the voice as belonging to Garrus. She had spoken to the turian a few times, and while she wouldn't call him a friend (at least not yet), she would say he was an acquaintance who could become more.

"I'm fine." Tali started her way back to the regular part of the engine room and the exit of the access tube. It was going to take her a little bit she realized, recognizing where she was. She'd gone pretty far into the depths of the engine.

"Right, well…" Garrus coughed, embarrassed.

"Do you need something?" Tali scowled behind her mask. One of the few good things about wearing the suit was that she could hide her emotions so easily. Not that there was anyone around to see that at the moment.

"I just wanted to make sure you were doing alright."

That drew Tali up for a pause. He wanted to make sure she was alright? That certainly wasn't very turian of him.

"I'm…" She scowled, confused. She didn't like being confused. "What are you after, Vakarian?"

"What?" Now he sounded confused.

Wonderful. This conversation was turning into nothing but a whole bunch of confusion. That's exactly Tali wanted.

"No one worries about a quarian, especially not a turian." Might as well do her best to clear away any confusion. "Why are you speaking to me?"

Garrus was silent for a long moment. Tali didn't know how to take that, so she focuses on getting back to the main part of the engine room.

"I just wanted to see if you were doing alright," Garrus finally said after a long while. "You're pretty far from home, and it has to be a little lonely for you."

Tali was silent, coming turning a corner. "Right… I…"

"I'm sorry." Garrus sounded embarrassed. "I can talk to you late-"

"Wait!" Tali practically shouted, surprising herself with the intensity of her voice.

The line didn't close, so Garrus was obviously still listening.

"I'm sorry." Tali said, continuing her trek out of the access tubes. "I'm not used to anyone caring about my well being."

"That must be hard for you."

"I'm a quarian. I am used to hardship. It doesn't mean I have to be a bosh'tet about it."

"I'm sorry. I think my translator glitched there. Bosh'tet?"

"It's…" Tali blushed behind her helmet. She didn't feel any particular need to translate it for him. "It doesn't matter. I was being an idiot."

"You're not an idiot." Garrus spoke so softly that she had to wonder for a moment whether she actually heard him or not.

Tali didn't know how to take that, but she was coming close to the entrance of the ducts. Hopefully she could put this embarrassing conversation behind her as soon as she was out.

Sure enough, when Tali emerged from the engines, she found Garrus standing there. He had a hand held out to help her up. She stared at it for a moment before taking it, and he pulled her out and effortlessly to her feet.

"Having fun, I see." There was a smile in his voice, but not his face. Mandibles and all that.

"What?" Tali was a little too stunned for her mind to be working one-hundred percent.

"Crawling around inside an engine, I mean." Garrus shuffled awkwardly on his feet, rubbing the back of his head.

"Oh... yes."

A moment of silence. Awkward. Racial tensions were such a weird thing to deal with.

"So... um... do you need anything?" If he could blush, Tali was sure that Garrus would be bright… whatever color a turian would turn. "I could... spirits, this is awkward."

Garrus gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. "Uh... I should... I should go. Let me know if you need anything."

Garrus turned and left the engine room as fast as he could, and Tali just watched him go. She was blushing the entire time.

###

Spitfire trotted her way up the neck of the Normandy towards the bridge, her wings extended, a cup of coffee balanced on each. She didn't spill so much as a single drop.

Stepping onto the bridge, she expertly set one of the cups in the cup holder next to Joker's chair. It wasn't a standard feature, and it was easily detachable for any surprise inspections. You couldn't work for twelve hours straight without having some form of liquid easily accessible. It made those shifts more bearable.

Setting her cup in her cup holder, she jumped up into her seat. The seat hummed ever so softly as it lifted up to its correct height, molding itself around her as it brought her closer to her haptic display controls.

"Thanks," Joker mumbled, taking the cup and taking a sip of coffee. He instantly grimaced, looking like he wanted to spit it out, but liquids and experimental prototype ships didn't exactly mix. With no desire to hurt his beloved ship, he swallowed, though Spitfire was sure he was doing it under extreme protest. He turned to her, his face scrunched up in disgust. "Ugh? Pumpkin?"

"It's all they had," Spitfire said, shrugging with her wings.

"Ugh." Despite the scrunching of his face and his utter disgust, Joker continued to drink his coffee. Beggars couldn't be choosers after all, not in their seventh hour of working. Pumpkin spice or not, coffee was coffee and he need to stay awake. "Who the hell puts pumpkin spice coffee on a Navy ship? That's like… against all the rules."

"You don't need to drink it if you don't like it." Spitfire chimed in from her chair as she looked over their fuel consumption. Well below expected levels. Good.

"No, no, I'm fine… Dammit." Joker shook his head, setting his coffee back in the cup-holder as several screens notified him they were closing in on their destination. He activated the comms. "Commander, we're about to enter the Pax system."

A moment later, the comms crackled back to life, and Shepard spoke. "Copy that, Joker. I'm on my way to the bridge."

As the comms turned off, Joker took another sip of his coffee. "This is just… This is just awful. Whoever came up with this deserves to, I don't know, watch something overbearingly cute until they go insane."

"I think it's kind of nice." Spitfire shrugged, taking a sip of her own coffee.

"You would."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Spitfire glared at him through narrow eyes.

"Well, you're Equestrian." He said that as if it explained everything. To most humans, it probably did.

"And?" Spitfire was notably not human, and thus didn't understand what Joker was talking about.

"That just means you like, live on sugar and spice and everything nice." Joker said those ridiculous words so matter of factly that Spitfire couldn't help but blink at him.

Spitfire stared at him, wondering if he could be anymore of an idiot. She blinked at that. What was she even thinking? Of course he could be. This was Joker, after all.

Notably, Joker had continued on speaking after she'd gotten all introspective. "You'd just eat donuts and cupcakes for every meal if they were there."

"Only if I wanted to look like you." Spitfire glared at him. Equestrians processed sugar better than any race out there, but they still got fat, just like everyone else. You didn't become lean muscle and sleek physique like her by gorging yourself on donuts and cupcakes everyday.

"Oh!" Joker looked at her, only half surprised by the burn. "Ouch, that burns."

Before either of them could say anything else, Shepard walked onto the bridge, standing between Joker's and Spitfire's chairs. They were all business in front of the Commander.

"We're about a minute out, Commander," Joker said over his shoulder.

Shepard nodded, staring at the shifting blue of FTL out the front viewscreen even as she stole Joker's coffee cup and took a sip. She nods in appreciation. "Not bad."

Spitfire grinned, glancing at Joker. "The Commander knows a good cup of coffee when she sees it."

"Yeah, well." Joker scoffed, rolling his eyes. "Shepard isn't normal."

"Do you want to repeat that, Flight Lieutenant?"

Joker's eyes went wide when he realized just what it was that he just said. "Uh…"

"He means no, ma'am." Spitfire spoke up, glancing at Shepard.

"That's what I figured." Shepard shared a small grin with Spitfire.

"Exiting FTL now, ma'am." Spitfire said as she turned her full attention to her controls, noting fro the corner of her vision that Joker was doing the same.

Even as Spitfire said that, the Normandy reverted back to normal space with a soft rumble, and they were immediately met with the sight of Noveria in the distance, its sun just peeking out from behind the far horizon.

Notably, Noveria was surrounded by a blockade of large, blocky ships.

"I'm getting multiple contacts here." Joker frowned, looking over just what the sensors were telling him. His eyes went wide when he realized just what he was seeing. "Commander, sensors are reading approximately one-hundred ships."

"Take us silent, Joker." Crossing her arms, Shepard stared at Noveria, wondering if this was going to turn into another Eden Prime.

"Aye-aye, ma'am." With a few quick presses on his haptic display, the Normandy disappeared from all sensors as the heat sinks took over from normal running, making the Normandy as cool as the background of space. As soon as that was done, he looked over the new reports the sensors were feeding him. "Most of the ships are frigate class, but there are a few big ones."

"Is that a…" Shepard squinted at one of the ships in the distance, wondering if she could believe what her eyes were telling her.

"A dreadnought?" Joker shrugged, biting his lip. "The sensors are reading it as an old turian dreadnought."

"Is Noveria under a pirate attack?" Shepard couldn't see any signs of a battle raging. The ships seemed to just be maintaining their orbits, and there were no tell tale flashes of explosive decompression or gardian laser flashes. Not a pirate attack then. Way to well organized for that.

"We're getting a hail, ma'am." Spitfire looked up at Shepard as she and Joker turned to look at her. The Normandy was running silent. There shouldn't be a ship in the galaxy that could track them. To be getting a message...

"We're getting a hail?" Joker looked like he was offended.

"It's more of a broad message pointed in our general direction." Spitfire explained. That was a relief. No one had figured out a way to track the Normandy through space.

"Let's hear it." Shepard put her hands on her hips, biting her lower lip.

With a few presses on her controls, Spitfire played the message.

"To the Alliance ship that somehow just turned invisible."

"At least they're being polite." Joker laughed, grinning.

"We are currently performing takeover operations of the Noveria Development Corporation. We are encountering heavy, armed resistance."

"They're being very free with their information." Brow furrowed, Spitfire tilted her head. This wasn't normal.

"Hyland-Sorah has no reason to piss off the Alliance. We buy a big percent of their products." Shepard looked to Joker. "Open up the channel."

Joker did as ordered, turning to nod at Shepard when he finished.

"This is Spectre Riley Shepard on the SSV Normandy." Shepard spoke with a clear voice that rang with command. "I have business on Noveria."

A second passed.

"Copy that, Spectre. You are cleared to land. We're sending coordinates now."

Sure enough, coordinates appeared on Joker's computer.

"Please do not deviate from the course. We do not have full control of Noveria's defenses yet."

"Copy that." Joker cut the channel, grimacing. "Heavy resistance. Always fun."

"Take us in, Joker." Shepard rubbed her forehead, feeling a headache coming on. "Yeah, this is what I wanted to deal with today," she muttered to herself.